Ilhan Omar, Representation and Muslim Political Organizing in the West

This article is part of a series that will look at the representation of Muslims and Islam in different arenas: media, politics, and culture. Authors will discuss the shortcomings of representation, and invite readers to ultimately question what goals it serves in the first place.

Ilhan Omar’s recent invite to a prominent Muslim convention in America sparked an intense debate around representation calling into question the successes or failures of Muslim activists who have allied themselves with the left in the West. While these are two separate discussions, Omar, as a Muslim political figure represents the overlap between these two debates. As someone who has been involved with political organizations in the UK, although Omar is a figure on the American left, I will use the politics of the UK as my primary reference point in this piece.

The Politics of Representation

Ilhan Omar is Somali, a refugee, a Muslim and a woman. The collection of these identities shape the way she is perceived by a large percentage of voters. Some on the left see these as a cross-section of identities which make her the ideal candidate for a diverse modern state. Others on the right see the same identities as a threat to the country they believe in. It is clear that the view of some on the right has made Omar the target of virulent abuse and death threats. Her role as one of the most prominent and visible Muslim politicians in the West makes her vulnerable in a society that has painted Muslims as barbaric people whose views and way of life are antithetical to Western society. This would have significant impact on her physical safety and mental health and in this aspect, it is absolutely necessary that Muslims show support for Omar and defend her right as a Muslim to play an active role in American politics. [1]

However, as Muslims, there is an another harm that we must address when considering our role in politics. Spiritual harm is an aspect of life that is often disregarded when considering our involvement in a secular political world, one that refuses to understand the impact of politics and political decisions beyond the physical. This is where the politics of diversity and representation play an active role in harming individual Muslims and the community, despite the best intentions of Muslim activists. [2]

In recent years, there has been a call for increased diversity in politics. President Biden promised and delivered a diverse cabinet that he claimed represented America. [3] Similarly, in the UK, none of the Great Offices of the State are currently held by a white man. [4] But in achieving these goals, the failure of diversity politics has been exposed in broad daylight. When diverse individuals are only seen for the diversity they represent and not the politics they advocate for, not only are they able to perpetrate harm, but they are able to use the very same diversity language to deflect from criticisms levelled against them. In the UK, Priti Patel, Home Secretary of the UK until this September, was able to use her childhood experience of racism to deflect from the racism of some of her own policies in government, including the deportation of refugees to Rwanda. [5]

In the case of Omar, the way her identity is perceived by the left has led to two different outcomes, both of which should be a cause for concern among politically active Muslims in the West. The first of these issues is the reduction of being a Muslim to a part of her diverse identity, instead of an all-encompassing expression of her faith and belief in a set of values inspired by the command of Allah and the example of the Prophet ﷺ. The diminishing of faith means that instead of taking into account Islam and its practices, liberal diversity politics lumps together being Muslim with race, gender, and sexuality, all markers of marginalized identities.

This misconception of faith leads to the second issue. The left does not defend or stand with Muslims because it believes in their right to practice their faith in the manner ordained. Instead, they defend Muslims seeing them as yet another marginalized group targeted by government policy across the globe. This also means that Omar and many other Muslim activists establish transactional relationships based on mutual support for these different historically marginalized groups. This support can range from supporting clearly un-Islamic positions to attending un-Islamic events in solidarity with groups who claim to support the Muslim community on key issues. 

Unfortunately, in her role as one of the most visible Muslims politicians in the Western world, Omar has fallen into this trap. She has shown active support for clearly un-Islamic positions and has attended un-Islamic events. As she has not publicly apologized or backtracked from these positions, the decision to invite her to a major Muslim convention is questionable at best. Her role in promoting haram as a visible Muslim will result greater spiritual harms, not only to herself but to other Muslims who consider her an example of a modern Muslim politician.

Politics and Allying with the Left

The second debate that has been sparked by Omar’s appearance is a reflection on the successes or failures of Muslim activists across the West in forming relationships with “left.” As someone who was a member of the UK Labour Party until recently and has worked with many on the left, I have first-hand experience attempting to navigate and actively evaluate the risks and rewards of working with the left in the UK. While I will use my own experience to frame this discussion, I admit that my opinion on this issue is unclear. I believe that any person who tells you they has the definitive answer to navigating politics as a Muslim in the Western world has failed to actively engage in politics in any real form. Unfortunately, the debate on the best strategy for political engagement in the Muslim community has lacked comprehension of the basic politics in the countries we live in.

This absence of understanding can be best understood through the attitude of some Muslims towards the left. In the UK and in some ways the U.S. the “left wing” parties, such as Labour and Democrats, can be broken into two separate camps. Understanding the differences between the two is essential to understanding why Muslim activists may or may not choose to work with these groups. The way I understand the separation of these groups is a reflection of my personal experiences and the overall political ideology that they are guided by. For simplicity’s sake, I will call the first group the liberal left. This group is usually comprised of liberals; they claim to be anti-racist, pro-human rights and support the active role of government in the economy as well as in promoting certain moral values. The second group is the socialist left. This group, espousing Marxist gospel, sees class as the foremost political issue plaguing society. They share some of the same political beliefs as the liberal left but believe in a much bigger role for the government in the economy and tend to be anti-imperialists.

These ideological differences can result in large disparities between the policies that each group advocates for. Obama and Biden in the U.S. and Blair and Starmer in the UK serve as examples of the first group. These leaders have been responsible for the War on Terror, bombing and invasion of Muslim countries, the implementation of counter-terrorism measures that target the Muslim community as well as continuous support for the apartheid regime of Israel.

Sanders in the U.S. and Corbyn in the UK are examples of the socialist left. Both individuals opposed the illegal war in Iraq, as well as other interventions by the West in the Muslim world. Both have shown active support for the rights of Palestinians despite the onslaught of slander they have faced from the media. Additionally, in the UK, Corbyn publicly opposed Prevent, a government anti-terrorism strategy, as it limits the expression of Muslim students in schools and universities. [6]

Yet, however apart they are, both groups remain supporters of un-Islamic ideologies and beliefs. But, considering the fact that Muslims only make up a tiny percentage of the population in the UK, forming relationships with some group is needed for the Muslim community to have any political impact whatsoever. For most, working with the right is not an option as these groups usually support policies and espouse rhetoric that causes physical harm to Muslims at home and abroad.

Treating allyship with both these aspects of the “left” as equal in opportunity and risk demonstrates an inability to grasp the political situation of the country and a lack of willingness to actively engage with groups that can help the cause of the Muslim community. Unfortunately, there is no ideal solution; politics is not simply philosophical, it impacts people’s day-to-day lives. Working with Ilhan Omar and others on the socialist left appears to provide the best opportunity to bring about practical policy changes that benefit the Muslim community in a substantive way. However, this group has failed to win elections and working with them often fails to achieve the policy reform that the Muslim community want and needs.

As a Muslim woman who advocates un-Islamic positions platforming and promoting Omar appears misguided, however, working with her and defending her from those who seek to attack the Muslims is imperative and to work with her on common interests is simply common sense.

Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

About the Author: Imran Amla, is based out of the UK. He is interested in political activism and local politics.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

2 thoughts on “Ilhan Omar, Representation and Muslim Political Organizing in the West

  1. Nah, I would guide Muslims away from supporting a murtad woman. She openly supports LGBTQ and has send aid to Israel by voting in support of it. How can you demand naive Muslims to support a Kaafirah? Fear Allah for spreading misguidance. Our strength comes from Allah not some Zindeeq who has sold our religious principles for so-called representation.

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